"I hate that guy!" "You're a jerk!" "You know what I heard she did? [Insert random offense here]. Which is just awful!" "I don't want to deal with them again!!" We've all heard these phrases from someone else in some form or another. Some of us have said them, or other phrases not on the list. I know I have. So often it is true that you or I take for granted the things we say, regardless of how it might hurt other people. Even if our words may seem harmless or in "good fun," we have a remarkable tendency to hurt those around us. Sometimes our anger in any given situation is completely justified, but our response to the situation is worse than what made us angry.
People are terrible communicators, which may seem like an obvious remark. If it were, however, then we might be able to begin communicating better. To be clear, I am not judging anyone for their shortcomings, because frankly, I myself am a "terrible communicator." I say things with the unintended effect of hurting those around me. Sometimes I apologize, but if I do not think that what I said was harmful, I don't rectify the mistake. If someone else hurts me, I do not confront them. I just let it be. I am not the only one who does this, either. The attitude pervading society on speech is, "I will say whatever I want, if you don't like it, deal with it." Hence, people say harsh things that are harmful to each other, and instead of calling it out, those who hear it just accept it.
But when we fail to temper our words and responses, we are not just doing something wrong. We have sinned. Scripture warns us to be careful of how we speak and to say only the things that are helpful to others. Ephesians 4:29 tells us, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." Even for Christians, this is a hard concept. How does one keep from "unwholesome talk?" That term could mean anything. The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 16:14: "Do everything in love." Do everything in love. Including how you speak to others. If what you want to say is not said in love, then don't say it. We have all argued, we have all been spiteful, and we've all spoken harshly to and about other people. But this is not how God wants us to conduct our conversations, rather, He wants us to show grace with our words (Colossians 4:6).
The Book of James says more: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who has been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers, this should not be." (James 3:9-10). This passage describes so many people, even those of us who are Christians. Like anyone else, Christians are human, and we say things about others that we should not. We say we love the Christ, and then forget one of the commandments He said were most important: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39). Our words reflect our hearts (James 1:26); hence, if we intend to follow the Lord properly, then we should let our speech demonstrate our love for Him and for our fellow man.
Now the question remains, what about the times when a "harsh word" is necessary? What if the only way to get through to a person who is doing something blatantly wrong is by speaking to them with brutal honesty? I have run into this situation myself. There are times you will have to speak harshly to someone to "wake them up" so to speak. To this I would say, remember Moses, Elijah, or even Paul. All three men spoke harshly to the people God sent them to. They did so with God's love in mind. Yes, they too made mistakes along the way, but they spoke harshly to awaken the people to God's message, not so that they could rant against people's choices. Jesus did this as well. Recall the "seven woes" in Matthew 23. He referred to the teachers of the law as "hypocrites," "snakes," and "brood of vipers." He did not do so to rant, but to expose their deceit and to call those around to repent and seek the God's forgiveness. Even His brutal honesty was spoken in love. Our takeaway is that if we must correct someone bluntly, we should imitate Christ: speak bluntly, but lovingly. Use your speech to call out sin and then help others out of it. I know it can be hard, and I admit, I do not always follow this advice. Everything in this article is as much for myself as for anyone reading this. I hope that in expounding on what I believe, I can help both myself and others to grow.
So this is the message that Scripture has for all of us regarding speech: let your words lift others up, not tear them down. Consider this verse: As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17). Our speech should follow that verse. We should all strive to make our words productive and character building and keep the love of God in everything that we say. If we keep that in mind, we will be better able to help those around us and strengthen our relationship with the Lord and with one another.